A Tale of Two Backs

If Montario Hardesty's return to good health sustains itself, allowing him to finally utilize the largess of physical talents that made him such an attractive prospect in 2005, the Vols will have the classic power back with home run speed that has been missing since the days of Jamal Lewis.

Admittedly that's a big IF because the name Hardesty is hardly synonymous with healthy. When he has been healthy during his first three seasons on the The Hill he has shown flashes of the game-breaking gifts that were so apparent when he played at New Bern (N.C.) High School four years ago. However he hasn't gone through any season without at least some injury concerns and has fallen short of becoming a consistent performer.

That makes Hardesty quite the compelling character because the only thing better than a rags-to-riches story is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. But there's also a back story on Hardesty which underscores what a guessing game high school recruiting can be and completes the stage for his senior season.

In 2005 the Vols were putting together what would be ranked the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation by Scout.com. Scholarship numbers were dwindling by the time January rolled around and Tennessee had only committed one running back — LaMarcus Coker, a five-star prospect from Antioch, who was ranked No. 7 at his position.

The Vols were looking to add another running back and the choice eventually boiled down to Toney Baker, a five-star tailback out of Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C., who was ranked No. 4 nationally and Hardesty, who many regarded as a better defensive back prospect than a running back. The four-star athlete was actually ranked No. 18 among the nation's cornerback prospects.

Baker signed with North Carolina State and rushed for 546 yards as a freshman and a team leading 688 yards as a sophomore. He was on the Doak Walker watch list going into the 2007 campaign but suffered a season ending injury in the opener and finished with 38 yards in 10 carries upping his career total to 1,272 yards in what amounted to a couple of full seasons.

Similarly Hardesty lost his freshman season to injury after rushing for 18 yards, He gained 384 yards as a sophomore, despite missing five games, and 373 yards as a junior in 10 games. He didn't play at all in four games last season due to lingering injuries. Hardesty's 757-yard career rushing total was compiled 18 games, or about a season and a half.

It's not fair to call Hardesty the wrong choice for the Vols back in 2005 when the statistical edge for Baker isn't significant. It also figured to take Hardesty longer to get up to speed at running back because he didn't have the volume of carries Baker did in high school. The reasons for signing Hardesty over Baker were sound. He was bigger than Baker and had that extra gear in open field that the prospect known as T.D. didn't. Hardesty was also a better athlete and could have played defense if needed whereas Baker was purely a running back.

The final verdict on this tale of two backs will not be rendered until the results of the next two seasons come in. Hardesty appears to be on the verge of a breakout season if he can successfully juke the injury bug.

There's one more element to this story that helps put the evaluation process into perspective. You see there was one more back the Vols recruited and likely would have signed that season if they had decided to offer him a scholarship. The back was ranked No. 61 at his position and considered to be perhaps a bit undersized for the pounding runners take in the SEC.

After three years that running back is no longer even playing college football, but that's only because he was drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys last spring after enjoying an All-SEC campaign at Arkansas.

Of course we're talking about Felix Jones who gained 2,954 rushing yards in three seasons with an average of 7.6 yards per carry. He also had 39 catches for 383 yards and 1,744 yards on kick returns with four touchdowns on returns of including a pair of 100-yard TDs.

It's good to remember this tale of two, make that three, backs the next time the Vols commit a prospect whose ranking doesn't appear to match UT's standards.


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